Monday, May 31, 2010

Kamenetz and Crawford: Mashing Up Class

In America, where the ideology of anti-intellectualism runs deep, it’s not hard to find people who call into question the value of education. If you are interested in the tradition, pick up Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, or if you are yourself an anti-intellectual simply recall the continued popularity of the quip: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” (often attributed to Mark Twain). In DIY U, Anya Kamenetz, adds a chapter to the history, not because she espouses anti-intellectualism (she’s a Yale graduate and both her parents are academics) but because she argues, quite persuasively, that a college education is so expensive nowadays that it’s no longer the guaranteed gateway to the middle-class that it once was.

To remedy the problem, Kamenetz wants students to take greater advantage of the open educational resources which people like David Wiley, Jim Groom, Stephen Downes and the OCW initiatives have long espoused. However, while there certainly is an imperative for us to redress the economic burdens that we’re piling on students, there’s been some interesting conversations on David Wiley, Michael Feldstein and Dean Dad’s blogs on whether today’s students are sufficiently intellectually privileged to take advantage of these new open modalities and what needs to be done so that they can take advantage of them. The challenge isn’t just to push content out onto the Web but to provide students with the guidance and intellectual catalysts in a virtual format that are afforded by the residential college and Yale’s fabled master’s teas of which Kamenetz may have occasionally partaken. So in spite of their celebration of eduPunk, and their desire to “destabilize traditional hierarchies in higher education” neither Wiley, Feldstein, nor Kamenetz see the traditional university withering away. Its relative advantages vis-à-vis other ways of getting educated may be eroding, but it still enjoys some absolute advantages.

Although herself a product of the Ivies, Kamenetz isn’t interested in discussing elite education (presumably she thinks it knows how to take care of itself). Still, it’s worth pointing out that some of the destabilizing tendencies that are at work in the community college and at overpriced second tier institutions are also manifest in more prestigious settings. Take for example Mathew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft which came out last year. Heralded as the new Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Crawford’s book is about his experience as a recently minted University of Chicago political science Ph.D. who becomes disenchanted with academic learning and turns to motorcycle repair as a palliative. For a while after getting his Ph.D., Crawford tries to live the life of a knowledge worker but he’s unhappy not only with having to sit in a cubicle but with the relative returns on his educational investment vis-à-vis the blue-collar worker:

" . . .parents don’t want their children to become plumbers. Yet that plumber under the sink might be charging somebody eighty dollars an hour. This fact ought, at least, to induce an experience of cognitive dissonance in the parent who regards his child as smart and want him to become a knowledge worker. If he accepts the basic premise of a knowledge economy that someone being paid a lot of money must know something, he may begin to wonder what is really going on under the sink." (page 20)

Maybe I too am focused overly much on the Ivies but I see it as a supporting exhibit to Kamenetz’ concerns. In DIY U Kamenetz wonders why as a journalist she was making so much less than her follow Yale grads who had gone to work as hedge fund managers. (p. 32) While Crawford directs his envy toward a different vocation (and by many measures a different social class) the laments are similar; even elite education no longer seems to offer clear remunerative guarantees.

The resonance doesn’t end there, however, as Crawford then goes on to suggest how best to redress these social worries:

"So what advice should one give a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump thorough the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid as an independent tradesmen than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level “creative.” To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable." (p. 53)

One should be careful, of course, not to press the Crawford-Kamenetz conflation too far. Crawford is a Jeffersonian Republican who is celebrating the modern yeoman. He’s interested in the lives and liberties of the working class but his emphasis is on independence freedom and work that is truly redemptive. Kamenetz, in contrast, despite her Yale pedigree, seems genuinely interested in social justice and expanding the middle class (p. xiii). Still, that doesn’t dampen the resonance too much. While Kamenetz ventured beyond Yale’s cloisters for internships at the Village Voice, Crawford took up Plutarch with one hand and a wrench with his other. Both are educational contrarians who seek to imbue a little more of a mash-up into the traditional curricular track. Like Twain before them, Kamenetz and Crawford have noticed a chasm between (their) schooling and education. And they are both seeking to help others close this chasm as a way of helping the next generation into careers that are both redemptive and remunerative.

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